Italian academics fear return to old policies under new minister

Appointment of university rector Gaetano Manfredi signals ‘complete continuity’ with previous decade of higher education policy despite need for change, say scholars

January 6, 2020
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Italy has appointed a universities minister for the first time in 12 years, but there is little hope that this will result in much-needed additional funding for public institutions.

Prime minister Giuseppe Conte divided the Ministry of Education in two last month, naming Lucia Azzolina from the populist Five Star Movement as minister for schools, and Gaetano Manfredi, an independent and rector of the University of Naples Federico II, as minister for universities and research.

The move followed the resignation of Lorenzo Fioramonti, who stepped down as education minister after the government approved a budget for 2020 that did not include an increase in spending on education. Professor Fioramonti had promised to make it easier for Italian émigré academics to apply to Italian universities and to introduce new metrics on impact to evaluate academics and institutions.

Gruppo 2003, an organisation of Italian scientists campaigning for change in the country’s academic system, welcomed the appointment of a minister dedicated to universities and research. It claimed that the new ministry would be able to “focus its action on the economic and programmatic revival of universities and research”, which “for years has been suffering from worrying political inattention and chronic underfunding”.

However, some scholars are concerned about Professor Manfredi’s record and believe that his appointment represents a continuation of the past decade of higher education policy when what the sector needs is significant reform.

Alberto Baccini, a professor in the department of economics and statistics at the University of Siena, said the decision to split the ministry “was a choice dictated by the exigencies of political balance rather than by a logic of rationalisation” because the two ministers “satisfy the two major political forces in government”.

“Italian universities need a discontinuity in policies: more funds and less power to small groups of academics around the national agency of evaluation, ANVUR,” he said.

“The choice of Manfredi is a signal of complete continuity with respect to the university policies adopted in Italy since 2010…In the past years, Manfredi, in his dual role as rector of the largest university in southern Italy and president of the Conference of Rectors, has distinguished himself for his unconditional support for any initiative of governments led by the Democratic Party.”

In particular, Professor Baccini referenced Professor Manfredi’s support for the proposal promoted by the Democratic Party-led government of Matteo Renzi, in power between 2014 and 2016, to create 500 elite professorships, with scholars selected by evaluation panels whose chairs the prime minister would nominate. The government withdrew the plan after strong opposition from academics.

Beniamino Cappelletti Montano, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Cagliari, said that “a strong discontinuity with the previous decade of politics in higher education” was necessary but “some previous stances of Manfredi…make me pessimistic”.

He said he was also concerned by a recent article in the right-wing newspaper Libero that suggested that Professor Manfredi supports a potential policy to create “first class” and “second class” universities through the allocation of funding.

“His success will be measured not only by his ability to obtain more funding from Conte, but also by his willingness to change the criteria for allocating [funds] and to drastically eliminate the bureaucracy produced by ANVUR,” he said.

However, Andrea Mammone, a history lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and a commentator on Italy’s far right, said Professor Manfredi’s position as rector of the University of Naples Federico II would help him to improve the quality of institutions in the south of the country, which have previously been neglected.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Same as in the UK. You can take almost any issue of the THE from 2016, 2013, 2020, 2007 even, and it's Groundhog day. Same issues discussed; lack of funding, managerialism, excessive competiution, too much time soent fruitlessly chasing grants, not enough research timer, bullying from above and below....and what has changed. Nada, Zilch, nein, nyet, non, nothing.

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